A chill weekend in November found Gail, my ex, and me deep in a pine forest in southwest Arkansas. A graduate student in geology, my thesis concerned long-forgotten mineral deposits in a sparsely populated corner of the universe. Years before the invention of GPS tracking devices, we relied on a very old Brunton compass to navigate through the stark loneliness of the southern Ouachita Mountains.
Tall trees, mostly pines, covered the rolling terrain. While the Ouachitas aren’t high, rapid elevation changes of several hundred feet are common. We were moving slowly, picking our way through the undergrowth as we traversed an east-west trending ridgeline, looking for an old lead mine hidden deep in the forest.
Gail was short, had green eyes, dark hair and an olive complexion inherited from her French-Acadian parents. Though raised in the New Orleans’ metro area, her athletic legs carried her through the forest as smoothly as if she’d been born there. She was walking ahead of me, and I bumped into her when she halted abruptly.
“How do you know where we’re going?” she asked. “There’s no trail. I think we’re lost.”
I was holding an old topo map in one hand and the Brunton compass in the other. “We’re following an azimuth. The mine should be just up ahead.”
“That’s what you said thirty minutes ago,” she said.
“It’s hard staying in a straight line with so many trees and boulders in the way.”
“Tell me about it.”
“Let’s keep walking,” I said. “We’ll find it.”
I was about to give up when we reached a slight clearing that led down the slope to a roaring stream. There was something anomalous about the rounded pile of dirt located in a bend.
“That has to be it,” I said.
“That pile of dirt?” she said.
“Someone dug that dirt out of the ground and put it there. I think it’s the mine we’re looking for.”
“Doesn’t look like a mine to me,” Gail said.
“Quit bitching and let’s investigate. Even if it’s not the Davis Mine, we can at least take a break.”
Gail had endless energy and rarely ever took a break. As I sat on a fallen log and tossed pebbles into the roaring water of the creek, she climbed up on the pile of dirt and began exploring it.
“This hill’s bigger than it looks,” she said. “It follows the river for at least fifty yards.”
“I’m sure it was built by humans,” I said.
“Hell yeah,” she said. “Look at this.”
Glancing up the hill, I could see Gail had something in her hand.
“What is it?” I asked.
“An old bottle.”
“Real old,” she said. “Looks like something from a museum.”
I left my perch on the stump and followed her up the hill. The bottle was faded green and crusted with dirt. I was still examining it when Gail called again.
“Check this out,” she said, holding up something for me to see.
“What is it?”
“What’s left of a Confederate soldier’s shirt.”
“How do you know that?”
“There’s a brass button still attached with the letters C.S.A.,” she said.
The weathered hill was the talus pile of an old mine. A scar, roughly a half-acre in size, was all that remained of the old mining operation. Vertical shafts had collapsed or were filled with standing water. We soon began digging beautiful ore specimens out of the talus pile strewn with old bottles, broken timbers and a few faded signs of the men that had worked it.
“How did anyone ever find this place?” Gail asked when she finally stopped for a break.
“Prospectors searching for silver in the 1830s found lead and antimony instead,” I said. “This particular mine used horses and slave labor to mine lead for the Confederacy.”
“The old man at the truck stop told us we’d never find this place, and that it’s haunted,” Gail said.
“Well, we did find it. Don’t know about any ghosts, though the accounts of operations at the Davis Mine refer to abuse, torture and even murder of Union prisoners of war conscripted to work here.”
“Then maybe it is haunted.”
“Maybe so,” I said. “The shadows and silence are starting to creep me out.”
“Me too,” Gail said. “I keep looking around, thinking someone’s behind me.”
It was already past noon when we found the old mine, days short and our time limited before we needed to start back to the truck. We took photos and collected specimens, all the while feeling as if there was something present other than ourselves, even if it was only fleeting shadows. The distinct sensation that we were disturbing a place where something terrible had happened was unmistakable. I felt it, and so did Gail.
I jumped when she said, “Oh, shit!”
“What is it?”
“You better come see. I’m not touching this thing.”
She was standing on the top of the pile, nudging something with the toe of her boot. Though mostly covered with dirt, it looked for all the world like a human skull.
“Shit is right,” I said, digging the skull out of the earth with my pick hammer.
“Is that a bullet hole?” Gail asked as I held the skull in my hand.
“Looks like it to me,” I said. “But hell if I know for sure.”
“What are we going to do with it?” Gail asked.
I tossed it into the creek, staring at the rapidly rushing water a moment before answering.
“Forget we found it,” I said.
“Can we do that?” Gail asked.
“I have a thesis to write and no time to participate in a murder investigation. I don’t intend to ever return to this place except maybe in my nightmares.”
“I hear that,” Gail said. “Let’s get the hell out of here before it gets dark.”
Twilight draped the forest when we finally made it back to our old faded green Ford truck, waiting for us on a muddy dirt road. When we returned to Fayetteville, I sent some of the ore samples to the U.S. Geological Survey in Denver for analysis. The results surprised me as I’m sure they would have the prospectors that discovered the Davis Mine. The ore wasn’t just lead and antimony; there was silver present, and it was richer even than ore from the Comstock Lode.
Many years have passed since Gail, and I felt the presence of ghosts at the remote Davis Mine, hidden deep in the Ouachita Mountains of Arkansas. Today, as an overhead cloud cast a shadow on my kittens, sleeping on the hood of my car, I remembered in vivid detail.